On the afternoon of 26 November 1933, a diminutive man brushed past a young landlord in a crowded railway station in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata (then Calcutta).
Amarendra Chandra Pandey, 20, felt a jab of pain in his right arm as the man dressed in khadi, or coarse, homespun cotton, disappeared into the crowd at Howrah station.
“Someone has pricked me,” he exclaimed, but he decided to press on with his journey to the family estate in Pakur, a district now in neighbouring Jharkhand state.
Accompanying relatives implored Amarendra to stay back and get his blood tested. But his half-brother Benoyendra, who was 10 years older and had arrived at the station uninvited, “made light of the incident” and persuaded him not to delay.
Three days later, a doctor examined Amarendra – he had returned to Kolkata after contracting a fever – and saw “something like the mark of a hypodermic needle” at the place where he had felt the prick. Over the next few days, the patient developed a high fever, swelling in his armpits and early signs of lung disease. On the night of 3 December, he sank into a coma. He died early next morning.
Doctors certified that Amarendra had died of pneumonia. But lab reports that arrived after his death pointed to the presence of Yersinia pestis, the lethal bacteria that causes plague, in his blood.
Transmitted by rodents and fleas, plague killed more than 12 million people in the Indian subcontinent between 1896 and 1918. Plague deaths had fallen to around half-a-million between 1929 and 1938, and there had not been a single case of plague recorded in Kolkata in the three years up to Amarendra’s death.